Credit: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Image

Historical Insights China’s Warlord Era

Warlords often traveled to villages, promising men high wages and the spoils of their raids to lure them into military service. About 1912, China. Credit: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Image

China’s Warlord Era

After the death of China’s emperor in 1916, the country collapsed, propelling formidable warlords into power.

During the early 20th century, fractured central leadership triggered the rise of military cliques across China. Violence and pillaging defined daily life as territorial warlords backed by powerful armies vied for control. Poverty-stricken rural areas were hardest hit. Millions of farmers were pushed off their lands, leaving almost 170 million unemployed by 1925. Warlords overprinted paper currency to fund their armies, devastating local economies, while the chaos interrupted harvests and cut off already limited transportation. Landless and idle, many young men joined the warlords’ armies lured by the promise of good pay—by 1928, 2 million had enlisted. In cities, people took to the streets to demand reform, transforming urban centers into revolutionary hubs. All the while foreign powers hoped to control China by funding warlords. Japan backed one clique while the Soviet Union established the 4 million-strong Revolutionary Army that ultimately reunified China in a 1928, ending the warlord dominion over the country and ushering in a new communist era.